On the problem of speaking effectively.
Whatever charisma may be, I don’t seem to have much of it. No, I’m not talking about the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit such as the ability to perform miracles or speak in foreign languages without first studying them. (Though I don’t have that kind of charisma either!) I’m talking about whatever it is that some people have which automatically attracts others to them and makes them want to listen to what they have to say. The whole issue of what makes people want to listen has recently become important to me because I’ve been told (rather pointedly!) that there are some who don’t like my speaking style.
A personality thing
I’ve never understood the phenomenon, but there are some people who seem to have instant credibility. They walk into a room and the center of gravity shifts. They become a center of attraction even if nobody knows them. Their presence is so powerful that it casts a shadow over everyone else. The force of their personality is such that they are able, at least to a certain extent, create their own reality. For lack of a better term, I call this sort of attraction ‘animal magnetism.’ When in the vicinity of such beings, it’s hard for us ‘mere mortals’ to get a hearing, let alone a favorable response.
My father has this gift – at least to a certain degree. I’ve seen him garner a respectful hearing from both pauper and princess. I’ve witnessed a hard-boiled customs official break into a beatific smile, stop Dad’s car and invite him to tea. When on a missions trip it doesn’t seem to matter when speaking the local language that his accent leaves much to be desired, his syntax and grammar are skewed and his diction, suspect. He just raises his voice, pounds the lectern a little harder, bulls his way forward through the swamps of language, and the people lap it up. In contrast, though I’ve been told that both my accent and diction are better than his, I have to really work at getting the same kind of hearing. It’s tempting to whine that life isn’t fair.
Though that sort of natural magnetism is undoubtedly a blessing to those who possess it, it can also turn into a temptation to cut corners. I’ve observed more than one speaker who substituted the force of his personality for solid research or exegesis. Oh, there are times when all of us are forced to bluff our way through because we genuinely haven’t had the time or opportunity to prepare as we ought. In those situations it often seems that the Spirit gives an extra measure of grace and what we feared would turn into disaster proves to be when we are the most eloquent and persuasive. But when a preacher begins to count on that as a regular occurrence; when he gets used to mesmerizing others with his charm and personality rather than doing his homework, he’s succumbed to a form of spiritual pride.
Perils of Prince Charming
It’s not only speakers who get short-changed by relying on their magnetism: their audience does too. All too often people get so wrapped up with the speaker’s persona that they don’t pay sufficient attention to him or his message. Malcolm Gladwell describes this phenomenon in his book blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. He calls it the Warren Harding Error.
By most accounts, Harding was the worst President the United States has ever had. He freely admitted to his friends that the job was beyond him. He had few if any enemies because he didn’t take a stand on anything. His speeches contained little of substance. His administration was notoriously corrupt. Several of his appointees later served jail time. On a personal level he, at different times, had several mistresses (at least one during during his time in office) not to mention an unknown number of one night stands. Clinton was not the first to have illicit sex in the Oval Office. Harding fathered at least one illegitimate child. Heavy cigar smoke, spittoons, free-flowing whiskey and swearing were all hallmarks of the twice-weekly marathon poker games in which he indulged. Even those who feel that Harding has been judged unfairly concede his drinking, chewing and philandering.
Ironically, Harding was swept into office by a landslide in the popular vote. He got over 60% of the vote while his main rival received only about 30%. Assuming that the majority view of Harding among historians is correct, how could someone so weak, incompetent, uncommitted, undisciplined and morally corrupt garner so much public confidence? Gladwell suggests that it was because of Harding’s personal charm. He simply looked presidential. He was tall and handsome. He was unfailingly courteous and polite – giving the impression that he cared about those with whom he interacted. His voice was rich, deep and melodious. He sounded good. Though he didn’t have much to say, he said it in a way, and with a voice, which mesmerized his hearers.
Needless to say, trust which is given on the basis of personality, without substance to back it up, is a fleeting thing. The adoration of the crowd is fickle and it is doubtful that Harding could have retained the goodwill of the people very long. Though he actually died of a heart attack, it was reportedly caused by food poisoning. Harding’s wife was widely suspected of poisoning him to prevent his being implicated in the scandals which rocked his administration.
So, while ‘animal magnetism’ can definitely play a role in whether a person is an effective communicator, it is certainly not the only factor involved. What, then, is involved? Why do we listen to some people while we tune others out? Or, to make it more personal, why should anybody listen to me?
Elements in the ability to persuade
Elsewhere in these musings (see the entry titled On Rhetoric) I questioned the emphasis we put on sermons. I even question the one-way nature of many of our classes. Regardless of whether I’m right or not, because of cultural expectations we are stuck with sermons and other rhetorical methods for the foreseeable future. That being the case, according to the rhetoricians what makes an effective speaker? What enables him to persuade? Aristotle identified three things which are still considered valid. These three elements are taught to this day in classes on speaking and communication.
The Greek word ‘ethos’ means ‘custom.’ When Aristotle wrote that ethos was one of the elements in persuasion he meant that the effectiveness of a speaker depends on how closely he conforms to the accepted values of those whom he addresses. In other words, is a speaker credible? Do we perceive him as trustworthy?
How do we judge whether someone is credible or worthy of our trust? One of the yardsticks we use to determine whether someone is credible, is character. We react according to what we know about the speaker or writer. We tend to listen to those who are honest and upright while we discount the words of the dishonest and devious. Actually, I should say that we make our judgment of whether someone is credible or trustworthy based on perceived character. For, we will respond to another based on our perception of their character regardless of whether our perception is accurate or not. Someone may be a crook and a congenital liar, but if we perceive him to be honest we will consider him more credible than someone who is innocent, honest, and without guile, yet is under a cloud of suspicion.
Another factor in credibility is whether we think a speaker or writer knows what he’s talking about. We will tune someone out even though he has a spotless character if we perceive that he is uninformed, hasn’t done his homework or is unsure of his facts. For example, I remember a brochure from the 1970s that one of young people in the youth group I led, once showed me. The intent of the brochure was to warn against the dangers of the rock music of the era. Though the intent was probably good, the basic premise – that the major record labels were in a conspiracy to corrupt youth – was, to put it mildly, suspect. But the real clincher which destroyed all credibility was this: The author purported to describe – complete with illustrations – how an album is made. It was blindingly obvious that this person had never set foot inside a recording studio and knew nothing about the process. If he couldn’t be bothered to find out the facts about a very well-known, widely publicized and easily researched process, why should I believe his assertions about secret deliberations in the boardrooms of the record labels? I would argue that this sort of blatant nonsense actually does more harm than good. A person who was exposed to it, and rejected it for the nonsense that it is, might very well become skeptical about legitimate warnings. It doesn’t build credibility when we manufacture ‘facts’ to support our theories. It doesn’t build credibility to ‘cry wolf’ unless there really is a wolf out there.
A third factor in deeming a speaker or writer credible is the perception of his attitude toward his audience. In other words, does a speaker or writer feel goodwill toward his audience? We tend to listen to those whom we perceive have our best interests in mind. On the other hand, we will discount the message if we think the speaker or writer wants to use us to further his own agenda, boost his own ego, patronizes us or talks down to us.
A second element in persuasion is ‘pathos.’ The root meaning of this word is ‘suffering.’ We derive the word ‘sympathy’ from it which means to ‘feel along with.’ In the context of effective speaking or writing, pathos refers to an appeal to emotion.
Emotion can be an extremely powerful force. It can, and often does, override logic and knowledge. C.S. Lewis gives the illustration in his book The Four Loves of a woman who freely acknowledges that she will be utterly miserable married to the man who has captured her affections. She knows that they are headed for tragedy. But in spite of that knowledge; in spite of all reason and counsel from those who love her and have her best interests at heart, she walks open-eyed into disaster.
How can a speaker or writer harness the power of emotion to persuade his audience? It seems to me that he can do it in one of two ways: Either he can demonstrate that he sympathizes with his audience, or he can stir up the sympathy of the audience for himself or for a third party. It’s an elusive thing, but if he can stir emotions in a positive direction, a speaker or writer will have a much better chance of getting people to do what he asks them to do. On the other hand, woe betide the speaker or writer who manages to stir up people’s emotions against himself!
Aristotle called the third element of persuasion ‘logos,’ that is, the ‘word.’ This is same term which is used in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word...” In the context of speaking and writing it refers to an appeal to the intellect through logic or reason.
While Christianity certainly involves the emotions (for example, see Ephesians 6:6 and 1 Peter 1:22), it is also a very reasonable faith. We do not have to set our brains to one side in order to follow Christ. Quite the contrary. The Christian faith satisfies the intellect as no other faith or philosophy can. Every other system of which I am aware contains fundamental contradictions and inconsistencies at the very core. Only Christianity is internally consistent and supplies the answers to our deepest questions.
Since intellect and rational argument have a large place in Christianity, it follows that those of us who speak or write as Christians will use logic and reason in trying to persuade. Our effectiveness will depend, in part, on whether what we say is logical and our reasoning is sound. Our influence will diminish in proportion to our guilt in uttering logical fallacies and non-sequiturs.
To Aristotle’s three elements I would add a fourth. Effectiveness in speaking depends, in part, on how dynamic a speaker is. This involves such things as varying the rate, pitch and loudness of his voice, eye contact with the audience, gestures, posture and movement. However, unlike Aristotle’s elements which seem to be constants in every age and society, the importance of being dynamic varies depending on the culture and where we are in the generational cycle. (At least in America.)
Take, for example, one of the most famous sermons of all time, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards. One place he delivered it was at Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741. Judging by conventional wisdom, Edwards violated every principle of effective delivery. He read his sermon, apparently without looking at his audience. He read it in a calm, quiet voice which seems inappropriate for the subject matter. Yet, the response was so overwhelming that some accounts say that he was unable to complete the sermon because of the crying and wailing of droves of repentant people calling on God for mercy.
The key to this apparent contradiction is that Edwards delivered his sermon during the Great Awakening. This was a point in time where people were entering what Mike Regele and Mark Shulz call the ‘experiencing faith’ phase of the generational cycle. At the beginning of 2009 we are at a different part of the cycle – we are just entering the ‘doing faith’ phase – and the response to Edward’s sermon is very different. I remember my daughter describing the reaction of the kids in her High School English class after they had read it. One response was puzzlement. The whole concept of sin and the consequences of it were foreign to their way of thinking. Perhaps the biggest reaction, however, was irritation and anger. What right did Edwards have to judge them? They missed the entire point which is, that God longs to extend mercy and forgiveness to those who will repent.
The point I am trying to make is that the impact of a dynamic delivery will vary depending on where we are in history. To be effective, we must vary our delivery according to the perceptions and needs of the time in which we live. I suspect that a dynamic delivery is probably much more important right now than it will be 20 years from now.
Examples from the Scriptures
How do the elements of persuasion which Aristotle wrote about hold up in the light of Scripture? Though the Apostles were not trained in Greek rhetoric (for example, see Paul’s comment in 2 Corinthians 11:6), they used all three of Aristotle’s elements in their speaking and writing.
How did John use the appeal of ethos? In 3rd John, verse 12, he made a direct appeal based on his known character: “...and you know that our testimony is true.” (NIV) He did the same thing while referring to himself in the Gospel of John: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” (John 24:21 NIV)
John also made repeated appeals based on his knowledge. In his writings, he uses the phrase, “we know” over and over. Even more importantly, John argues on the basis of his personal, first-hand knowledge of Christ. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1 John 1:1 NIV)
John also expressed his goodwill towards those whom he was addressing. For example, he starts his second letter this way, “To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth...” (2 John 1 NIV)
John also made use of pathos. For example, he used an emotional appeal for us to lay down our lives, and to help those in need. Since Christ laid down His life for us, we ought to be willing to do the same for others (See 1 John 3:16-18).
John’s writings are also strongly supported by logos. In fact, John began the Gospel which bears his name with an exposition of Christ as the Logos, who enlightens and gives life to men.
One of the best known examples of a persuasive speech by the Apostle Peter is the one he delivered on Pentecost, which is described in Acts, chapter 2. Most of his sermon is based on an appeal to reason (logos). For example, in verse 15 he used deductive reasoning (reasoning from a general principle to a certain conclusion) to prove that he and the others who had received the outpouring of the Spirit were not drunk. He also quoted Old Testament Scripture to prove his contention that Jesus is the Messiah.
Yet, interspersed in the logical appeal is ethos as well. He established a rapport with the audience by calling them ‘brothers’ in verse 29. He established credibility by citing his, and the other Apostle’s, first-hand knowledge of the resurrection (verse 32).
Peter finished his sermon with an appeal based on pathos. “You are guilty of killing God’s Christ.”
What was the result? “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”” (Acts 2:37 NIV)
Perhaps of all the New Testament writers, Paul comes most often to mind for his use of ethos. He was not shy in citing his credentials. Though not a trained speaker, he had knowledge (2 Corinthians 11:6). He stated over and over the fact that he was an Apostle (For example, see 2 Corinthians 12:12, Galatians 2:8). He was an eyewitness of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 1:9, 15:1-8). He cited the work which he had done (1 Corinthians 15:10). He even used his earthly qualifications and attainments as an anti-argument! (See Philippians 3:1-7)
Paul is even more well known for his use of the logos appeal. For example, a major portion of the letters to the Romans and Galatians is based on tightly reasoned, logical argument. In the first 3 chapters of Romans, Paul used inductive reasoning (using specific examples to derive a general principle) to demonstrate that no one is righteous, but that are all under sin. But in chapter 6, he used deductive reasoning (deriving a specific conclusion from a general principle) to show that those who have died to sin by being baptized into the death of Christ, are no longer slaves of sin (See verses 5-7). Paul not only used reason, he also appealed directly to the reason of his audience. “I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.” (1 Corinthians 10:15 NIV)
Though Paul is best known for his use of ethos and logos, he also made some amazing appeals to pathos. For example, in writing to the Thessalonians, Paul described his relationship to them as both mother and father (See 1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11).
No doubt, it was this skillful weaving of ethos, pathos and logos which made Paul one of the most persuasive writers of all time.
The ultimate example, of course is Jesus. He too, used the three elements of persuasion.
He argued from ethos when He made such statements as, “...Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going...” (John 8:14 NIV), “...You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” (John 8:23 NIV) and, “Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?” (John 8:45-46 NIV)
Another expression of ethos is that Jesus taught with authority (Mark 1:22). In addition to authority, however, Jesus showed goodwill toward those He addressed. One famous example is the prelude to the feeding of the 5 thousand: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” (Mark 6:34 NIV)
Jesus’ teaching was also full of pathos. Consider just one of many possible examples: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NIV)
Jesus also appealed to the intellect in His teaching. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used deductive reasoning to show the necessity of providing a good example (See Matthew 5:14-16). In the same sermon He also used inductive reasoning to show that God will take care of those who serve Him (See Matthew 6:28-33, 7:9-11). These are just 2 of the many examples of the logos appeal in Jesus’ teaching.
What about dynamic delivery? Not much is said about the delivery style of the Apostles, or Jesus. There are a few hints, though. “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice...” (John 7:37 NIV) “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd...” (Acts 2:14 NIV) “Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described...” (Acts 12:17 NIV) “Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said...” (Acts 13:16 NIV) From these and other hints I think it is safe to say that Jesus and the Apostles knew how to use their voices and body language to reinforce their message. On the other hand, it is obvious that they never overdid it. Form never overshadowed the message.
Since both Jesus and the Apostles used all three of the elements of persuasion, ethos, pathos and logos, I think that we who claim to speak and write on behalf of Christ would do well to examine how we use them. That being the case, how do my messages stack up? How well do I employ the elements of persuasion?
How well do I do in the ethos department? For starters, I do have a good reputation. Whatever else people may think about me, I’m sure that everyone who knows me would agree that I’m honest, trustworthy and dependable. One of the nicest compliments I have ever received was, “When you get up to speak, you show humility.” The compliment meant all the more to me because it came from one of my children.
Do I know what I’m talking about? Even my detractors concede that I do. One of them went so far as to tell me that I find insights in Scripture beyond his ability. Though he criticizes my speaking he has appreciated my teaching. Of all the speakers and teachers at the congregation, I probably spend more time in study or research than anyone. When people ask questions in class, I am generally able to answer and, if challenged, have the sources to back up what I say. When I don’t know, I say so then, go and find the answer and present it next time.
How well do I project that I have the well-being of those I’m speaking to in mind? Here, I may have a little difficulty. I am a fairly introverted and private person. It’s not always easy for me to express emotion. Sometimes, I’m afraid, it probably comes across as being aloof. Yes, I care. At times it’s fair to say that I care very deeply – but I’m not sure that people always pick up on it.
What about the element of logos? Does my speaking appeal to the intellect? Do I use logic and reason? Oh, yes! Reason and logical explanation is one of my strong points. Deductive and inductive logic both play a part in my speaking. I’m known for using charts and maps and explaining the historical background. I go out of my way to explain context, and draw logical conclusions from the text under discussion. I try to go into the who, what, when, where, why and how of things. If anything, I’m sometimes guilty of going into things too deeply. Sometimes I get too philosophical. Though nobody has called me on being illogical, I may not always put things in simple enough terms for everyone to understand.
What about pathos? Do I engage people’s emotions when I speak? Of the three elements of persuasion, this is the one where I am probably weakest. Since I don’t particularly appreciate it when someone tries to play on my emotions, I’m not very good at doing it to others. Among other things, this makes it difficult for me to think of illustrations which really grip people and drive home the points I’m trying to make. It’s ironic, because in some of the course material I’ve developed, I talk about the power of Jesus’ illustrations – how the parables and stories are so memorable and applicable because of His use of ordinary things to which everyone can relate. I understand some of the theory, but find it incredibly hard to put it into practice. It’s an area where I consciously struggle to improve.
So, granted I need improvement in the area of pathos, but considering that I rate high in ethos and logos, why the complaints about my speaking? Most of it boils down to the pesky business of delivery. Part of it is my voice. I am blessed (or cursed, depending upon your point of view!) with a very soft voice. Without reinforcement it would be almost impossible for people in the last row to hear me. In recordings, my voice is noticeably at a lower volume than other people’s voices. I suspect that people subconsciously interpret my soft voice and lower volume to mean that what I have to say isn’t as important.
Another factor may be my rate of delivery. People have complimented me on my ability to read Scripture because I read with lots of expression and meaning. But when I speak, I tend to speak more slowly. A large part of the reason is that if I go faster, I tend to get ahead of my thoughts or lose my place in my notes. It’s an area where I’m trying to improve.
Speaking of notes, I’ve also been criticized for having my nose in them too much – particularly at the start of a sermon. It’s true that, whenever possible, I fully manuscript my messages. One reason I do so is that it helps me figure out how to say things. It also helps me catch all sorts of problems in logic or flow. But when I deliver a message, I don’t stick slavishly to the written manuscript, nor do I read most of it – though I often do read passages of Scripture from my notes rather than take the time to turn there in my Bible. However, the criticism probably is valid that I depend too much on my notes at the beginning of sermons. I’m told it comes across like I am unsure of my material. I’m still trying to find the balance. I don’t want to memorize as that often is just as mechanical as reading.
Probably the biggest problem is that I am not a very dynamic speaker. I am certainly not a pulpit pounder. That kind of thing just isn’t me. And whatever anyone says, I am not about to learn a bunch of artificial gestures. Yes, I could probably be more expressive, but it’s got to come from within. In the long run I think that genuineness will prove to be far more effective than any amount of mimicking someone else’s technique.
A lot of this probably comes down to experience. How can anyone get good at anything without doing it? Until a couple of years ago, I had very little experience in public speaking. Practice makes perfect. I’m sure things will improve with time.
Writing all this out has helped me identify specific areas I need to work on. Yet, I couldn’t help but think about another area which impacts effective communication. This is not to excuse or justify any of my own shortcomings, but what does it say about the recipient when good content is depreciated because the delivery isn’t as polished as it might be? Didn’t Jesus have something to say about types of soil? (See Matthew 13:1-23) Something to think about!